We arrive in the Burton Taylor – a small studio above and behind the Playhouse, and until this evening an unknown quantity to me. 'Intimate' is the word; it's a sleek black space bounded on three sides by two rows of chairs, to a maximum capacity of, I'd guess, well under 50. It's late on a Tuesday evening and I'm not quite sure what I'm letting myself in for; a quick glance at the audience suggests – through a mixture of spot-on trendy glasses and immaculate footwear – that there are more than a few native Italian speakers here tonight. Why does that trouble me? Because I've elected to see a play entirely in Italian, and – woe is me – beyond asking nicely for a pizza, I don't speak the language.
Fiabe Italiane is a noble effort: an adaptation of Italo Calvino's Italian folktales, delivered to a select audience by Italian students – that is, students who can speak Italian, from native speakers to (I'm astonished that this is true) beginners. After an evocative start to a soundtrack of what sounds like mournful owls in the dark, the language arrives thick and fast. The actors project fluently; they have clearly got behind the effect of the words, rather than just their meaning, so that their expressive faces and hands lead us in the narrative as much as the tone of their voices. That is to say, they lead me; the audience is somehow getting all the jokes, and not just the physical ones. After a while I notice that everyone else has managed to procure programme notes from some (to me) invisible source, and are provided with English outlines to each of the dozen or so folktales that unfold before us. That would have been handy.
As it is, I must try to follow as best I can; and I'm pleased to discover that, language barrier or no, it's an illuminating experience. The Italian language sounds really rather nice, and the student actors are really going for it with a deft mixture of physicality and storytelling lilts: living shadows are conjured; kings are made and dismantled; dragons with scarf-tails erupt from boxes in a particularly menacing way. ('I'm going to eat you up' is fairly translatable when delivered in stomach-chilling tones.) As the evening progresses, I stop worrying about trying to comprehend, and just enjoy the set-pieces for what they are, at a fundamental level – people enjoying themselves by making things up. The lights drop for the last time, and I'm sorry to be released from this muddling, mad, more-than-a-little magical dreamspace.